MANCHESTER, England -- The mantra in the Women's Super League is that the gap is closing which, whilst not incorrect, is also not the strictest version of the truth either. With the emphasis being that the league is one of the most competitive in the world, there is the need to hammer home the idea that any WSL team can beat any other WSL team, yet, when you cast an eye over the table or the results, it's clear that that isn't quite the case.
What is true is that some teams had managed to climb the ladder and get closer to those above them, with Manchester United furthest in their ascent. For other teams like Leicester City or the recently relegated Birmingham City, the gap, which can become a chasm, refuses to close, for it is not just about the results or stats but of the resources and investment involved. And as we are so used to seeing in the men's game, money frequently talks and once a team establishes themselves at the top, they tend to stay there.
There has been room for those outside of the traditional top three to put pressure on the teams above them and, although Liverpool and Aston Villa's unexpected wins over Chelsea and Manchester City respectively on the season's opening weekend didn't flow on to more unexpected results, there has been a greater chance for teams like United to push on up the table.
Yet, for all United's growth, two teams have repeatedly evaded them in the league: Chelsea and Man City.
Coming into Sunday's clash in a rich vein of form, the focus was on the Red Devils, not least after their win over Arsenal last month, proving just how far they've come under Marc Skinner and how the confidence is flowing in the team. Yet, the visitors struggled for purchase over the opening exchanges with City on the front foot, albeit looking flat and all too predictable in attack.
The game turned after the halfway point in the first-half when United hit their stride in attack with the players in red getting a hold of the ball and cutting in and around their opposition. Although there was a deflection from Leah Galton's initial effort, the incisive move was deserving of a goal and indeed, the visitors should and could have had a second whilst they were in the ascendency.
The most pleasing side of things for United came from their balance on the pitch, and the measured way they attacked, utilising everyone in red to overload their opposition. Each match -- save for their mistake-ridden loss to Chelsea -- has had different players filling the starring roles. Even though it was Galton and Hannah Blundell getting the plaudits on Sunday, the tremendous work of the United midfield to nullify their opposition by dropping to help defend as well as aiding their attack has been a consistent highlight this season, with captain, Katie Zelem always getting through a tremendous workload in the middle of the park.
As United boss Skinner said in his post-match press conference, "You can't work on one side of the game, we work on all sides of the game; we work hard at defending but this is a team game. My teams will always play like teams, not like individuals. I give them the freedom to play as their individual selves so they never lose their own identity but our identity is hard work: we're going to stop the opponent form playing and then we're going to maximise our potential from there."
And indeed, that team ethos is palpable in how United approaches the game and how they've adapted against their opposition this season, finding the wherewithal to play on the front foot against the three teams who have finished above them each season they've been in the WSL.
The worry for this United team who have shown evident growth is they still did not walk away with the win at the Etihad, some half-time adjustments from City ensuring that the hosts started out on the front foot after the break which eventually culminated in a goal for the in-form Laura Coombs. An end-to-end spell at in the dying embers of the game showed the fight from both team and, as per the United manager, the team were frustrated with the result showing a clear hunger to take more than just a point in front of a 44,259 strong crowd on the unfamiliar side of Manchester.
The sense from Skinner was for all the work the team have done to get to this point, there is yet more to be done for the team to fully rise up the ranks but it's clear, after 90 minutes in an entertaining derby, that for the Red Devils, that gap truly is closing.
For City however, even allowing for the positive spell that led to their goal and the period afterwards when they pressed up against the visiting defence, was they were all too choreographed, all too obvious in their movements in attack. Where United have different ways of hurting a team and different players to carry the ball and create, the Citizens routinely look for Chloe Kelly and Lauren Hemp on the wings to ping balls into the box for Bunny Shaw.
Yet with the quality Gareth Taylor can call upon, his bench as creative and impressive as his starting XI, his team lacks the inspiration and excitement you'd expect given the personnel at his disposal.
The match ended in a draw -- the most likely result before kick-off -- and whilst it was an engaging game, it's clear that both teams have strides to make if they are to go for the title, but for now, they are free to glance down at the gap between themselves and the eight teams looking up, across the clearing.